When Rajon Rondo tore his ACL against the Atlanta Hawks last Friday night, the Boston Celtics were suddenly faced with several enormous questions—an especially vital one being: who in the backcourt would step up in his absence?
Just two years ago, Jason Terry was the second-most important offensive player on a veteran Dallas Mavericks team that unexpectedly ran a brutal gauntlet to their very first NBA championship. Terry wreaked so much damage in those Finals, the Heat stuck their very best defender (a guy by the name of LeBron James) on him for significant stretches.
The tactical result played right into Dallas’ hands, as Terry ran off screens, initiated pick-and-rolls of an unstoppable variety with Dirk Nowitzki as his partner, knocked down three-pointers and carved his way through the mid-range area like a surgeon.
This was the player Celtics general manager Danny Ainge believed he was using his mid-level exception on last summer. Unfortunately, this is far from the player he received. Terry has looked out of sorts in Boston, shooting 37 percent from the floor in December and 30.6 percent from behind the arc in January.
A major reason for his struggles is the stark shift in his role. Rondo is a better player than Terry, and so it makes sense for him to be dribbling the ball more often. But with the ball is where Terry’s always thrived. Now that Rondo’s out, one would think with the ball in Terry's hands more often, those struggles can be rectified.
According to NBA.com’s Statscube, Terry’s per 36 minute production takes a turn for the better with Rondo on the bench. His assists go from 1.8 to 4.4 (understandably), his points go from 11.8 to 14.3, his attempts go from 9.4 to 12.9 and both his rebounds and free-throw attempts take marginal advances.
His increase in above-the-break three-point attempts is substantial. Despite his percentage sliding to a grotesque 28 percent on such shots with Rondo not on the court, this should be noted as good news. Terry’s a good three-point shooter, and in order for Boston’s offense to stabilize itself (dare I say, get better?) with Rondo gone, three-point attempts will need to substantially increase.
Adding to that, where Terry's especially effective is in the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy, Terry is the 13th most efficient pick-and-roll ball-handler in the league, averaging 0.94 points per possession. So maybe (just maybe) loosening the collar a bit and letting him freestyle in this situation is something Doc Rivers might want to do more of. The options to create offense without Rondo are only so many, and Terry could be the most effective atop a short list.
Here are a few examples of what Terry can do as the initiator of some quick offense.
Here's Terry running a quick pick-and-roll, spotting Brandon Bass on the weak side and delivering a beautiful pass through the heart of Sacramento's defense. Plays like this cause opposing teams to break down, and they're absolutely necessary if the Celtics want to shoot some adrenaline in their porous offense.
Here Terry begins the play by using a stagger screen from Bass and Chris Wilcox, then, after it doesn't work in an open shot for Bass, turns it into a pick-and-roll with Wilcox that gets him a good shot at the rim. It's plays like this the Celtics will need to run consistently if they want to make the playoffs, then possibly do some damage there once they're in.